A Major New Political Force In Northern Ireland Could Rewrite Power Sharing
Northern Ireland’s political map was redrawn when nationalist Sinn Fein overtook unionist DUP to become the largest party at last week’s Assembly elections, but it’s the surge of the non-aligned Alliance party that is more likely to raise fundamental questions for the region in the short term.
A liberal centrist party led by Naomi Long, terms like “middle way" and “third way” are regularly used to describe Alliance, which has close links with Britain’s Liberal Democrats. At just over 90 pages, its manifesto was the longest of the main political parties heading into the 5th May vote, which the party says evidences its heavy focus on everyday issues like the cost of living.
The party, founded in 1970 with the aim of “bridging divisions” in Northern Ireland, ended up more than doubling its number of seats in the Assembly, adding nine to the eight it already had, making Alliance comfortably the third largest party behind Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Its core principle of being neither nationalist nor unionist therefore complicates the inevitable commentary about the prospect of a united Ireland and possibility of a referendum on reunification following Sinn Fein’s victory, and throws into question how much longer Northern Ireland’s current power-sharing arrangements will even be fit for purpose.
Under Northern Ireland's power-sharing arrangements, that Alliance wants to reform, only the largest nationalist and unionist parties can hold the leadership positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. If Alliance finishes second or first at a future election, the current rules mean they would not be able to take up these offices.
Alliance's recent surge in support has illustrated how "outdated" the current power-sharing arrangement set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is, according to Jon Tonge, a professor of British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool.
"It is a system built on unionism versus nationalism, as that was the whole ethos of the Good Friday Agreement," he told PoliticsHome in Belfast this week.
"It didn't take into account the possible growth of the others."
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns said that as Northern Ireland approaches the 25th-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, there eventually "needs to be a conversation" about whether the system established as part of the peace ought to be modernised.
“Over time there needs to be conversation, a reflection about how those institutions and those agreements evolved," he told PoliticsHome. But he believed that "the immediate aftermath of the election" was not the right moment to initiate that conversation.
"Perhaps next year, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, when hopefully before that point we will have a devolved government, that might be an opportunity to bring people together to start to think about that.”
A senior government source told PoliticsHome that they believed Alliance could become the second or first largest party in Northern Ireland in the next ten years.
Alliance has blamed the sectarian politics of the DUP and Sinn Fein for years of impasse that have bedevilled Stormont, leaving voters without a fully-functioning Executive while major issues go unaddressed. More than a week after the 5 May elections, the DUP is still refusing to form a government with Sinn Fein, citing its opposition to post-Brexit trade arrangements.
Julian Smith, the Conservative MP and former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told this week's episode of PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that Alliance had tapped into a local frustration that politicians were not getting to work on the everyday concerns which most matter to people.
“I found when I was secretary of state, and what we are seeing now, is that most women and men in Northern Ireland want bread and butter issues, like the cost of living, dealt with," he said.
Tonge said that around 40% of Northern Ireland's population do not describe themselves as unionist or nationalist, citing Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey analysis, meaning Alliance is "fishing in a big electoral pool now" and "the only sector of the population is growing".
"Alliance has got more votes to go," he said.
Dr Patricia O'Lynn was elected to Stormont for the first time last week when she became North Antrim's first Alliance and first female Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA).
A former advisor to party leader Long who worked in school exclusion before entering politics, O'Lynn said the party had received transfer votes from all over the political spectrum at last week's election. Northern Ireland uses a single transferable vote system to elect its MLAs, in which voters rank candidates by preference and votes are transferred until the quota is filled.
O'Lynn's election was viewed as a landmark moment for Alliance in its bid to reshape Northern Irish politics.
North Antrim is classic DUP territory, and has been represented in Westminster by totemic unionist leader Ian Paisley MP. O'Lynn said the area is "traditionally known as the Bible belt of Northern Ireland".
“Breaking through in North Antrim is symbolic of much deeper and wider change that's happening across Northern Ireland, and one that I believe is going to be sustained," she explained to PoliticsHome in Belfast this week.
Tonge said a key part of Alliance's electoral success was that they are a "transfer friendly" party which receives a high number of second preference votes, particularly from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which are widely regarded as moderate alternatives to the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.
"There's not enough people who loathe Alliance to stop them," he told PoliticsHome, adding that it was an effective campaign machine with young, energetic members.
Patrick Brown, the newly-elected Alliance MLA for South Down, told PoliticsHome that Long’s leadership had played a major part in the party’s recent success.
“She is one of the main assets that we have as a party, 100%," Brown told PoliticsHome. "When I brought her to my area in Warrenpoint during the campaign, it was like being with The Beatles with the amount of people coming over and saying ‘good luck’ and taking photos with her."
Whether Alliance continues to grow its support in Northern Ireland will be one of the key questions facing not just politicians in Belfast, but those in London and Dublin too, as calls for debate about whether power-sharing arrangements need to be changed would almost certainly follow.
“Northern Ireland has historically been defined along the binary terms of unionism and nationalism, but in Alliance we see ourselves as unaligned and that it is a legitimate political stance to take,” Brown added.
“There is a growing mandate and electorate for that position."
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